Regular readers will know that I'm a pompous windbag and love to hear the sound of my own voice. They will also know that I like being able to describe why I think a game is good or bad and being able to quantify that. Preferably in a big wall of text that nobody reads tucked away in a corner of the internet.
Animal Crossing presents a unique challenge in being a video game with a cult following, that doesn't really fit a mold. There are games like it - the Sims, Tomodachi Life, Harvest Moon - but that's about it.
But these titles fit in their own different corners of the genre. Each one a slightly different revision.
When I was making up my mind as to if I was going to buy animal crossing, I reached out to trusted correspondents who already had the game. I asked what they liked about it, what they didn't like about it. I expected I'd be able to make a determination from there.
But each time the answer was the same - something along the lines of "I don't really know, it's just kind of chill and fun." That wasn't enough for me, so I'd press harder, but they just couldn't shed any more light. Which then feeds back into the problem I mentioned at the start of the column, then reiterated twice.
There isn't really anything like Animal Crossing, but Animal Crossing.
Mechanically, it's quite shallow. You want to catch a fish? It's a contextual button press at the right time. Want to grow trees or plant flowers? Dig a hole and have at it. Animal Crossing is unapologetically simple - and that's okay. After all, it is intended to be for children. But Nintendo's ability to produce games that have broad appeal despite their simplicity, on arguably the best platform of the generation is something to be admired. Or perhaps feared, when they finally get around to turning the screws to extracting as much money as they can out of their userbase.
Animal Crossing has often been referred to as a farmville game for the modern age and that feels about right. Progress is slow - almost achingly so - being tied to realtime. Your civic works and additional retail establishments will be open tomorrow. Your flowers might cross-breed tomorrow. Everything takes place tomorrow. Yet there's a certain magic in the mundanity and the forced delay. It builds anticipation and hope for the future. It also builds a potentially destructive gameplay loop, but that's another story for another time.
None of this is particularly new, though. Animal Crossing has been a regular performer since the Gamecube - and these mechanics have remained largely unchanged.
What's new in animal crossing is... well... it's on the Switch now. There's a graphical update and instead of being in a coastal town, you're on a deserted island. It falls to you to build infrastructure, slowly gather items, attract visitors and do all the regular gameplay loop tasks. Unless you're a manic who is prepared to advance time on the Switch, it takes time to build up, giving you a greater sense of appreciation and accomplishment for how far you've come - and how far you have left to go. Even the end of the "main" part of Animal Crossing doesn't signal the end of the line. There's so much more to experience, see, do - in daily bite-sized chunks.
In the end I grew weary of accomplishing the same tasks day in and day out and sub-contracted the daily 'work' of Island Maintenance onto my wife. It took some pushing and prodding but eventually she grew to love the game - and now plays it more than I do. Of course it's tough to say if the love affair will last - after all, Animal Crossing is a three hundred and sixty-five day affair - and even the most dedicated Animal Crossers will eventually depart their island for the last time.
But do I recommend Animal Crossing? Do I think it's good? Would I buy it again?
The answers to those questions all tie back into the first dillemma. Animal Crossing is unique. It is like nothing else I've played in recent memory. What do I like about it? I like its visual aesthetic. What don't I like? I don't really dislike anything about it. But it's so hard to break into its component parts and accurately articulate what makes it what it is - and if those component pieces add up to a good game.
So, unfortunately you read this wall of text to come to the conclusion that you're going to have to take $80 in your hand and just wing it. And I'm not sorry about that. Because it is truly unique - and you will never play anything quite like it again.
At least until the next Animal Crossing comes out.
Catch you next time,
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